My Life Behind the Wheel (Not)
LONDON, ONTARIO – Shortly after my sixteenth birthday, I did the expected thing and applied for a learner’s driving permit. As part of that process, I attended one lecture/slide show at the old London Police Station at the western foot of King Street, and then passed a short, written exam in which I successfully identified road signs and answered some perfunctory questions about road safety. So far, so good. I was on my way. Trans-Canada Hell Drivers, here I come.
Then at the end of that session, a copper handed around a sheaf of wickedly distressing photos of actual accident sites complete with badly mangled victims. (I wonder if it was even a consideration back in 1968 to get permission from the victims or the victims’ families to share such invasive pictures?) The gruesome photos were probably supposed to impress upon us pimply drivers-to-be that zooming around in half-ton metal capsules was a deadly serious business. But I think I knew that already. And I now suspect that those vaguely pornographic snaps – it really was as if Kenneth Anger was the man in charge of the Traffic Division’s dark room – might have supplied the finishing touch in curing me of wanting to drive at all.
Next, like my three brothers before me and all of my friends, I was supposed to head out for a series of test drives with my dad sitting to my right dispensing pointers and support until we deemed that I was ready to take the much more elaborate test and earn my full driver’s licence. But it was at that point that I did a most unexpected thing. Which is to say, I did nothing. I didn’t head out for a test drive even once. I didn’t mark up the shiny complexion of our family sedan with a single dent or scratch. I quietly allowed that learner’s permit to expire and never applied for another one.
Powerfully dissuasive as they were, I don’t think we can entirely chalk up my failure in this regard to those scuzzy pictures. At an even deeper and more instinctual level than that, I wasn’t chomping at the bit to get driving because I knew that – typewriters and stereos aside (neither of which is likely to kill you if you lose control) – I fundamentally hated most kinds of machinery. I used to earn pocket money by cutting neighbours’ lawns with a whole range of finicky power mowers and never came to any sort of grief thereby. I could operate all the machinery in industrial arts class without losing any digits or blinding myself.
But I think I’ve always sensed my lack of that instinctive affinity and fascination for machines and cars that most boys seem to develop. And figuring I’d be a mediocre and inattentive driver at best – the kind of lug who’d clog up the roads and get in everybody’s way – I decided to do the world a really big favour and not become a driver. And as a perpetual reader who’s always got at least one book on the go, I’ve never minded taking the bus for treks across town . . . at least not until this blighted year of the Wuhan Batflu plague.
The only times I’ve had cause to seriously regret my decision to abstain from motoring were when our kids were really young and required a lot of ferrying about or more recently when my wife and I head out on extended treks on our own and all the driving falls to her. “My God, I wish you’d learned to drive,” she’s been known to mutter on some occasions. Though perhaps not uttered as often, I would like the record to show that I’ve also heard her say – when watching me ride my bicycle on rainy days with umbrella held aloft or even when trying to get a strange coffee-maker to work – “Man, I’m glad you don’t drive.” And more recently yet, we’ve been resorting to Greyhounds, trains and planes for really long hauls and luxuriating in the scenery and one another’s company in ways that are not possible when she has to keep her attention on the road.
Anyway, the die was cast long ago and around the time of my sixtieth birthday I actually entertained the possibility that maybe I’d be one of those lucky souls who would make it through his entire life without ever being in a car crash. And then came a gorgeous May afternoon in 2013 when, heading north through the intersection of Ridout at Baseline (just outside the childhood home of my friend Roger Baker) our number came up.
My wife was in the driver’s seat of our Toyota Matrix; the car we’re – okay, she’s – still driving today. I was in the suicide seat which might have been all too aptly named if my wife hadn’t sharply swerved left as a woman accelerated her way through the red light heading west, clipping the rear panel on our right side with sufficient force that she all but took off the back bumper and sent us spinning a hundred and eighty degrees clockwise in the middle of Ridout Street so that we ended up facing south.
We were incredibly lucky. There were at least four other cars within our immediate radius and none of them got swept up into our melee. A wonderfully thoughtful man in a pickup truck pulled over, gave us his name and number in case we needed him to act as a witness and instructed us in our scatterbrained state of shock about what we needed to do right now – ie: get our car off the road, exchange information with the other driver who had now pulled over and was making her sheepish way over to talk with us and then get ourselves out to the accident reporting centre.
This last bit was news to me. I knew we had to get off the road but I expected that accident participants should more or less stay put until the police came out to the collision site and straightened everything out. But those days are now long gone and no matter how frazzled you are, cops leave all that finicky crap up to you. Some old family friends happened upon the scene about five minutes after the collision, recognized us and stopped to help us arrange for a tow truck driver to remove our dangling rear bumper with little more than a tap and cart our car out to the centre and then take it on to a repair shop.
Physically all the accident participants were fine and developed no injuries later. Though our car was pretty mashed up, the accident’s impact on our own corporeal frames was no worse than what we quite enjoy experiencing on the Dodge ‘Em cars at the Western Fair. (“That was fun. Let’s go smash into somebody else.”) The airbags didn’t deploy. The car’s alignment seemed to hold. There was no leakage under the chassis, no geyser of steam belching out of the hood, no breakage in the bags of groceries in the back hatch which we’d just picked up at the Metro. The car’s CD player even continued to play Cecil Armstrong Gibbs’ Lyric Sonata, Op. 63, for violin and piano without a skip or lurch; the music’s unflappable serenity providing a sweet counterpoint to our own adrenaline-saturated nerves.
And the other driver, our accident’s perpetrator, couldn’t have been nicer or more abjectly apologetic. She confessed to her wrongdoing right away and assured us that her insurance policy was up to date and had just been renewed the day before. And, sure enough, all was fixed and paid for within a few weeks. As an explanation of how she could’ve been so inattentive as to run a red light, she speculated that perhaps the abundance of four way stops in that neighbourhood had lulled her into a routine of coming to a stop, letting that car go through, now you proceed . . . “I know it’s no excuse,” she said. “I should have been paying attention but perhaps that’s what I was thinking . . . or not thinking.”
My heart went out to her. She was just the kind of driver I would’ve been.
Our friends dropped me and our groceries off at home where I got to work cooking dinner for a party of eight that we were hosting in a few more hours. My wife was out at the accident reporting centre at the same time as the lady who smashed into us and as they were concluding their business, she inquired whether my wife needed a ride home.
“It’s very sweet of you to offer,” my wife replied, “But I think I’ll get a cab.”
And now, almost eight years after that unfortunate altercation, I move toward that age range when one’s children typically start to devise strategies to get their parents to ease up on driving or even stop altogether and leave the roadways to younger folk whose eyeballs and reflexes are in tip-top shape. This fall, as if on cue, our oldest grandchild will be able to apply for his learner's permit, should he feel so moved. So it begins to look like the time has come for me to close up that vexed file for good, hang up my imaginary keys on an imaginary hook and retreat from the field of motor vehicle management with my virginity intact. I wonder if Queen Elizabeth who ascended to the throne in the month that I was born (and is therefore unlikely to still be around when I turn a hundred) could be persuaded to send me some kind of certificate attesting to my perfectly spotless record as a driver?
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